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p116 Ara

Unsigned article on pp116‑117 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

ARA (βωμός, ἐσχάρα, θυτήριον), an altar. Altars were in antiquity so indispensable a part of the worship of the gods, that it seemed impossible to conceive of the worship of the gods without altars. Thus we have the amusing syllogism in Lucian, εἰ γὰρ εἰσὶ βωμοί, εἰσὶ καὶ θεοί· ἀλλὰ μήν εἰσὶ βωμοί, εἰσὶν ἄρα καὶ θεοί (Jupiter Trag. c51). In reference to the terms, βωμός properly signifies any elevation, and hence we find in Homer ἱερὸς βωμός, but it afterwards came to be applied to an elevation used for the worship of the gods, and hence an altar. Ἐσχάρα was used in the limited sense of an altar for burnt-offerings. In Latin ara and altare are often used without any distinction, but properly ara was lower than altare: the latter was erected in honour of the superior gods, the former in honour of the inferior, heroes and demigods. Thus we read in Virgil (Ecl. V.65):—

"En quattuor aras:

Ecce duas tibi, Daphni; duas, altaria, Phoebo."

On the other hand, sacrifices were offered to the infernal gods, not upon altars, but in cavities (scrobes, scrobiculi, βόθροι, λάκκοι) dug in the ground (Festus, s.v. Altaria).

As among the ancients almost every religious act was accompanied by sacrifice, it was often necessary to provide altars on the spur of the occasion, and they were then constructed of earth, sods, or stones, collected on the spot. When the occasion was not sudden, they were built with regular courses of masonry or brickwork, as is clearly shown in several examples on the column of Trajan at Rome. See the left-hand figure in the woodcut annexed. The first deviation from this absolute simplicity of form consisted in the addition of a base, and of a corresponding projection at the top, the latter being intended to hold the fire and the objects offered in sacrifice. These two parts are so common as to be almost uniform types of the form of an altar, and will be found in all the figures inserted underneath.


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Altars were either square or round. The latter form, which was the less common of the two, is exemplified in the following figures.


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In later times altars were ornamented with festoons and garlands of flowers; and the altar represented in the next cut shows the manner in which these festoons were suspended. They were also adorned with sculpture; and some were covered with the works of the most celebrated artists of antiquity.a The first cut above exhibits a specimen of the elaborate style, the outline of an Etruscan altar, in contrast with the unadorned altar. If an altar was erected before a statue of a god, it was always to be lower than the statue before which it p117was placed (Vitruv. IV.9). Of this we have an example in a medallion on the Arch of Constantine at Rome, representing an altar erected before a statue of Apollo. See the annexed cut.


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	It was necessary that an altar should be built in the open air, in order that the steam of the sacrifice might be wafted up to heaven, and it might be built in any place, as on the side of a mountain, on the shore of the sea, or in a sacred grove. But as the worship of the gods was in later times chiefly connected with temples, altars became an indispensable part of the latter, and though there could be altars without temples, there could hardly be temples without altars. The altars of burnt-offerings, at which animal sacrifices were presented, were erected before the temples (βωμοὶ προνάοι, Aesch. Suppl. 497), as shown in the woodcut in the article Antae; but there were also altars, on which incense was burnt and bloodless sacrifices offered, within the temple, and principally before the statue of the divinity to whom they were dedicated. All altars were places of refuge. The supplicants were considered as placing themselves under the protection of the deities to whom the altars were consecrated; and violence to the unfortunate, even to slaves and criminals, in such circumstances, was regarded as violence towards the deities themselves. It was also the practice among the Greeks to take solemn oaths at altars, either taking hold of the altar or of the statue of the god. Cicero (pro Balb. 5) expressly mentions this as a Greek practice. (Comp. K. F. Hermann, Gottesdienst. Alterth. d. Griechen, § 17, and § 22 n9).


Thayer's Note:

a At this point the careful reader might be wondering why the article doesn't say peep about the two most famous arae of them all: the Ara Pacis and the Great Altar of Pergamum, each covered with some wonderful sculpture.

The answer for once is simple. This article was written in the mid‑19c, and neither had been fully excavated and reconstituted yet: that wouldn't happen until the 1930's. (For the details, see my page on the Ara Pacis and Insecula's page on the Pergamon Altar.

Mind you, that doesn't explain the absence here of Smith's usual impressive panoply of classical citations! A lot more could have been said; but since this is not a topic I know anything about, you won't find it here.

I can, however, still show you an interesting photo of a beautiful small altar.


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Page updated: 6 Dec 08